Updated: Oct 2
We have a right to enjoy the rewards of our labor.
We are in the midst of what some are referring to as the Great Resignation. In April, four million workers quit their jobs and 95% are considering changing jobs. Among the many reflective adjustments that COVID-19 has precipitated is how workers view their lives in relation to their jobs. COVID has not only disrupted our physical, social, and religious lives; it has also disrupted our work lives.
The Great Resignation from No Concern
According to the CEO of Stoke, Shahar Erez, there are three factors driving this mass exodus of people from their current jobs: “the changing generation, the economic crisis, and the realization people have had that they can have a different social contract.” Erez’s analysis provides us a contextual framework for understanding why people would leave their jobs during a pandemic, especially given the economic uncertainty the global community continues to face.
1. The present generation is more interested in social impact than income. Prior to the Millennial generation, the mindset of American society was to pursue the American Dream—health, wealth, and prosperity. With a booming economy emerging out of our victorious campaign against the Axis Powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy, the American Dream was born. The general concept was for Americans to enjoy the luxuries of the rich, things we had been previously denied access to. With the marketing of Main Street and the expansion of credit, working class Americans could fulfill their dreams. The more goods and services industries produced, the more we dreamed, the more debt we incurred, and the more income we needed to earn.
Millennials and Generation Z are not as driven by income as they are impact. For them, engaging in meaningful work that serves a noble cause is far more rewarding than a new car, bigger house, or vacation in Hawaii. This shift in philosophy is also driving how they spend their dollars, resulting in the emergence of social enterprises that highlight how a percentage of their revenues will be used to benefit society.
So, while those from earlier generations view financial security from a pragmatic perspective, Millennials and Generation Z are willing to live with more economic uncertainty and less luxuries. This is not to suggest that all of those born after 1980 hold this view, but many do. Needless to say, their paradigm has impacted earlier generations, causing them to reflect on their own participation in the rat race of the American Dream and to examine whether they are happier with their abundance of material possessions.
2. The financial crisis has accelerated people’s pursuit of multiple streams of income for greater economic security. We now live in what is called a “Gig Economy.” It’s simply a fancy word for freelance work. Companies like Uber, Grubhub, and Etsy are examples of businesses that utilize gig workers. Gig (or freelance) workers are nothing new, but what is different is the growing number of Americans who are becoming freelancers. The International Labor Organization projected that over 40% of the workforce would be gig workers by 2020.
The pandemic cost many Americans jobs as mandatory shutdowns hampered our economy. Some businesses were not able to withstand the downturn and were forced to close, and others laid off workers. Without a new job to turn to in a nationwide shutdown, people were left with limited options: apply for unemployment, take a shot at starting their own businesses, or enter the gig workforce. Even those who maintain full employment are engaging the gig economy to establish an additional revenue stream or to test the waters before transitioning fully.
Americans recognize their jobs may not always be there and going somewhere else may not be a possibility, so they are taking matters into their own hands to ensure they can stay afloat during the next crisis.
3. Employees want more control and flexibility to balance their professional and personal lives. We don’t need a scientific survey to know that most people feel overworked and underpaid. As the world continues to advance technologically, so does the number of hours we spend doing our jobs. It is no secret that we are never able to fully unplug from work: emails fill our inboxes morning, noon, night, and overnight; text messages are exchanged over the weekend; and we monitor what’s happening at work during our vacations. Our jobs have taken control of our lives, and we are out of balance.
This imbalance finds its equilibrium in today’s gig model. Gig workers can work several jobs without being tethered to a 9-to-5 workday or forced to work overtime. This gives them the flexibility and freedom to determine their work week and pursue other opportunities as they see fit. This freedom does come with the risks of less economic security, no health and retirement benefits, and lack of career pathing, but they are willing to trade less certainty for more control over their lives.
The Great Frustration with No Return
The reality is that these three observations are really issues that were already looming and find their ultimate catalyst and convergence in a single event: COVID-19.
The Great Resignation is a result of the great frustration. The preacher in Ecclesiastes speaks to the frustration (vanity) of toiling without the benefit of enjoying its fruits: “Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward” (5:18).
The change in the attitude of America’s workforce is not a result of laziness but haziness as to the rewards and benefits of work. When people no longer see virtue in their vocation, they become frustrated and abandon it. But Ecclesiastes 5:18 shares two important principles about the enjoyment that results from our employment: It’s right and our reward.
1. It’s good and right to enjoy the sustenance and amenities of life that result from our work. We should caution ourselves against pitting old world versus new world philosophies against each other, because the Bible affirms hard work (Prov. 14:23) and leaving an inheritance for our grandchildren (Prov. 13:22). It also warns us that if we want to eat, we have to work (2 Thess. 3:10). If we spend our lives engaging in all play and no work, we deny ourselves the dignity and security that comes with our labor.
At the same time, the preacher affirms our right to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Life is short. Spending our few years on this earth only in toil is terrible. What amenities we have in this life are God’s gift to us to experience the pleasures of His creation. If we spend our lives engaging in all work and no play, we deny ourselves the enjoyment of that work. So, do both.
2. Sustenance and the amenities of life are our reward for our work. Work is not a negative; it is a positive. It is theological, for God put man in the garden to work (Gen. 2:15). Work is one way we reflect the imago Dei (God’s image) in the earth, because God worked in creation for six days. Enjoyment is another way we reflect His image because God rested on the seventh day as He took time to enjoy what He had created (v. 2).
Taking the time to enjoy the benefits that come with our labor is our reward. It is what we receive in return. In fact, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament defines “reward” as that portion of an inheritance that is divided to us. You earned it; therefore, you have a right to benefit from it. To not take the time to experience the blessings that result from our toil is to deny ourselves our share of what we have earned. So, enjoy your portion of the proceeds.
Work as Means, Not Master
The pandemic has led to a philosophical renaissance of what matters most in life: God, family, health and well-being, and community. It has also forced us to rethink what younger generations have already learned: There must be a balance between laboring and living.
If we are to enjoy God, family, healthy living, and those we share life with, we must remember that work is an instrument for something more meaningful. Work must no longer be our master but the means by which we create our share of life’s pleasures. When we approach work theologically and not economically, we will recalibrate our lives and find more enjoyment in life itself.
Rev. Isaac Hayes is the president of Healing of the Soul Ministries. He is also an Assistant Pastor at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, IL, and a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. Follow Rev. Hayes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @RevIsaacHayes.
 Jessica Dickler, “‘Great Resignation’ Gains Steam as Return-To-Work Plans Take Effect,” CNBC, June 29, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/06/29/more-people-plan-to-quit-as-return-to-work-plans-go-into-effect-.html.  Stephanie Vozza, “The ‘Great Resignation’ Is Here. This Is How Employers Should Prepare,” Fast Company, July 15, 2021, https://www.fastcompany.com/90646274/the-great-resignation-is-here-this-is-how-employers-should-prepare?partner=rss&utm_source=rss&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=rss+fastcompany&utm_content=rss?cid=search.  Eddie Lou, “Why Millennials Want More Than Just Work: The Importance of Your 'Double Bottom Line',” Forbes, June 9, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2017/06/09/why-millennials-want-more-than-just-work-the-importance-of-your-double-bottom-line/?sh=727cc6bd5784.  Nandita Bose, “EXCLUSIVE U.S. Labor Secretary Supports Classifying Gig Workers as Employees,” Reuters, April 29, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/exclusive-us-labor-secretary-says-most-gig-workers-should-be-classified-2021-04-29/.  Donald J. Wiseman, “669 חָלַק,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 293.